Mobility

Life with the MacBook Air: The netbook I've been waiting for

Vincent Danen has been using the new MacBook Air long enough to find its quirks, its benefits, and declare it the netbook he's been waiting on for years. He also shares a tip on hibernation settings.

I have been waiting for years, ever since the first ASUS EeePC came out, for Apple to respond with a netbook of its own. I watched in severe disappointment as the original MacBook Air came out, not because it wasn't an amazing piece of engineering, which it was, but because it was too big. It was thin, it was light, but it's surface size was twice as big as any of the current netbooks, making it a lighter, thinner, and really expensive laptop. A netbook it was not. Then the iPad came out, and again I was disappointed. I was not, and still am not, in the market for an iPod made for blind people. The limited functionality of an iPad doesn't make it anything remotely resembling a netbook.

I've gone the Hackintosh route, which worked quite nicely on my MSI Wind before it died. It was troublesome to update, but it was really slick to have OS X running on something so small. Much nicer to haul around than my 13" MacBook.

Then Apple came out with the new MacBook Air, and what really appealed to me was the 11.6" model. This was more like the netbook that I wanted years ago. And with the MSI Wind dead, I was again in the market for a new ultra-portable laptop/netbook. So, despite a severe look from my wife and a shake of her head, I bought it.

I have to admit, I am in love with this machine. It is expensive, don't get me wrong, but to me it is well worth the cost. I wanted something small, something light, and something running OS X. The MacBook Air gives me all of these things and more. With the SSD drive, it's fast. I mean really fast. I was concerned that the under-powered Core 2 Duo 1.4GHz processor wouldn't be enough for my needs (I do a fair amount of development work, so speed is important to me), but it hasn't really slowed me down. Sure, compiling stuff in Fink takes longer than it does on the MacBook, but I can live with that.

The 2GB of RAM is adequate for what I'm doing (writing articles, web browsing, email, some python development), and I'm not seeing the system beachball all over the place as a result.

Once I programmed my way of thinking to realize that this was an auxiliary system and not a replacement system, I could drop off a lot of apps that I use on my day-to-day workstation. The idea behind this machine was portability, and to let me do things easily, such as proof reading articles while waiting for my daughter's Christmas concert to begin (lame, perhaps, but necessary when the Christmas season is so jam-packed and deadlines need to be observed!).

I don't even miss the lack of a CD/DVD drive. Sharing my Mac Pro's DVD drive is sufficient, and when using Wireless N networking, file transfer speeds are really quite good. The bulk of my data can reside on the desktop machine, and it's accessible from anywhere that I have wireless access using SSHFS or ShareTool, if I'm not at home. What I thought was a measly 128GB of drive space has turned out to be more than enough.

I also appreciate the full-size keyboard. One thing I hated about the EeePC and the (better) MSI Wind were the midget-sized keyboards. These are great for my daughter, but I fat-fingered everything and was hitting backspace once for every three characters typed. The only lament about the keyboard is the lack of backlighting. That would have been a very welcome feature.

The only other drawback I found was that, quite often, when waking from sleep, the screen would remain dim. I could tell the system was on when I tilted it to catch the light at a certain angle, but it was impossible to do anything with it. A little hack to change the power management solved that, and has given me better standby battery life as a result. Recently there was a firmware update that was supposed to fix the black screen problem, but honestly, I'm enjoying so much better battery life now, that I have no interest in changing the settings back. My only compromise is that it doesn't resume as quickly, because it has to grab the suspended image from disk, rather than memory, but with the faster SSD drive, it's still pretty quick. For anyone else that wants to try it out, you need to run this command in the Terminal:

$ sudo pmset -a hibernatemode 25

This tells the system to only use the disk for hibernating, and stops power to memory (which is where the battery-savings kick in). Read "man pmset" for the gory details and be careful to type the right thing (typing the wrong thing can seriously hose your system). Be aware of this warning in the man page:

We do not recommend modifying hibernation settings. Any changes you
make are not supported. If you choose to do so anyway, we recommend using one
of these three settings. For your sake and mine, please don't use anything
other 0, 3, or 25.

Once I figured this out, the MacBook Air has been a complete joy to use. The screen is bright, the text is sharp — so much so, in fact, that after using it for a while and then firing up the old MacBook, it's display seemed over-large, fuzzy, and dingy. Of course, the MacBook still has its uses, as it has a stronger CPU, more memory, and a larger drive. But for most of what I do, the MacBook Air is ideal.

Do I regret this purchase? Absolutely not. I lament the price somewhat, but if I look at what the iPad is going for, versus what the MacBook Air is going for, I suppose it's not out of line. Compared to other netbooks, yes, the MacBook Air is an expensive piece of equipment. But it has a finesse that other netbooks don't have, and although it's not just about style for me, you have to admit that the MacBook Air is one sweet piece of hardware. The 11.6" form factor is absolutely perfect for what I want, and it does everything I need without compromise. In short, this is the machine I've been waiting on for years.

About

Vincent Danen works on the Red Hat Security Response Team and lives in Canada. He has been writing about and developing on Linux for over 10 years and is a veteran Mac user.

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